Presidential Reunion: Scenes from the Opening of the Bush Library

The presidential library is an opportunity for Bush to burnish his legacy by establishing an institution committed to promoting its principles.

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President Barack Obama joined each of the living U.S. presidents on Thursday to celebrate the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.

With his parents in attendance, the 43rd President received warm tributes from both his predecessor and successor. “He is a good man,” Obama said in remarks that lauded Bush’s “incredible strength and resolve” in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, his work combating disease around the world and his willingness to forge cross-aisle partnerships on issues like immigration reform.

The opening of the $250 million library, headquartered at Southern Methodist University near his Texas home, is an opportunity for Bush to burnish his legacy by establishing an institution committed to promoting its principles. The library will house a trove of more than 43,000 artifacts from Bush’s administration.

“My deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom,” Bush said. “I believe that freedom is a gift from God and the hope of every human heart.”

Obama and Bush spoke along with the three other living former presidents in a rare reunion—it is only the second time that the five living members of the Presidents’ Club have gathered. The first was in January 2009, just before Obama was sworn into office.

The World’s Most Exclusive Club” was warmly received at the dedication ceremony. The heavily Republican crowd applauded and laughed along with Bill Clinton’s joke-peppered speech, especially at mention of George W. Bush’s bathroom self-portraits. He concluded on a serious note about the importance of the leaders coming together. “Debate and difference is an important part of every free society,” Clinton said.

President Jimmy Carter praised Bush for his role in helping secure peace between North and South Sudan in 2005 and his approval of expanded aid to the nations of Africa. “Mr. President let me say that I am filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth,” Carter said.

President George H.W. Bush, who has been hospitalized recently for bronchitis, spoke haltingly for just about 30 seconds while seated in his wheelchair, thanking guests for coming out to support his son. A standing ovation lasted nearly as long as his comments, and his son and wife helped him to his feet to recognize the applause.

Bush 43 is undergoing a coming-out of sorts after years spent in relative seclusion, away from the prying eyes of cameras and reporters that characterized his two terms in the White House and his years in the Texas governor’s mansion before that. As the library’s opening approached, Bush and his wife embarked on a round-robin of interviews with all the major television networks, likely aware that history’s appraisal of his legacy and years in office will soon be taking form.

There’s at least some evidence that Americans are warming to Bush four years after he returned to his ranch in Crawford, even if they still question his judgment on Iraq and other issues. While Bush left office with an approval rating of 33 percent, that figure has climbed to 47 percent — about equal to Obama’s own approval rating, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released ahead of the library opening.

With reporting by the Associated Press

More Photography from Time